Young Children’s Educational Literature: A Scientific Gap

Having more options is better.  Unfortunately, the parents and educators of young children do not have many picture book options in arenas of science such as genetics and DNA. Children develop their intellectual identity through their reading choices, and exposure to science in informal settings affects science literacy later in life. The dawn of the 1990’s DNA sequencing revolution allowed us to ask about new medically and technologically important questions about living organisms. How then can the youngest minds develop intellectually and start thinking about and asking their own questions about DNA and genetics?

Scaffolding is a temporary construct to support a child as they explore new areas of learning, such as a familiar or relatable story structure.  Stories have the educational advantage of engaging multiple areas of intelligence, such as visual-spatial or logic-deductive, and appealing to different learning styles, such as auditory or visual [1]. Developmentally appropriate science books for children not only introduce content, but also promote curiosity and open opportunities for inquiry based learning. Educators still need to be cautious with their choice of picture books. Of the 73 children’s science books reviewed in one study, 16 were life sciences books. Of those 16: 15 were inaccurate or created misconceptions, eight had advanced vocabulary inappropriate for the target audience, and four had further problems, using words such as anthropomorphism [2].

Currently, children’s books about DNA and genetics cast children into new intellectual territory without provisions to make long-lasting connections to the content.  For instance, You Share Genes with Me tries to illustrate how much DNA is identical between humans and other organisms. The book explains that humans and chimpanzees share 99.8% of their DNA, humans and mice share 97.5% of their DNA, and so on, but lacks clear learning goals to explain what DNA is, what DNA does, or why different organisms would share DNA sequences. Of the other two DNA picture books available for online purchase, “DNA is here to Stay” has clear learning goals and is written with an appropriate level of detail, but it still lacks a story.

The U.S. falls behind most of the developed world for acquiring scientific knowledge in school.  Notwithstanding minor variations across schools and districts, fundamental concepts of public science education have not changed much in the past 25 years. Most policy solutions for improving school-aged children’s mathematical and scientific abilities in comparison to their peers abroad assume that children do most of their learning, and their best learning, in class. Only 4% of U.S. teachers for kindergarten through second grade majored in science or science education; few took college-level science courses at all.  This reduces the odds of introducing science topics to their classes unprompted. In the past 20 years, however, American adults consistently outperform their foreign counterparts in scientific literacy, perhaps due to exposure to informal science education throughout life [3]. Picture books can be a sizeable part of an American child’s informal education, positively affecting their scientific literacy later in life.

Since children have a subjective awareness of how their choices shape themselves and how they are perceived, selecting books to read aids development of an intellectual identity. This practice therefore calls for more supportive, high-quality, and captivating books for children to choose from an array of subjects and disciplines. If there are no available compelling children’s books on genetics or other sciences, it is less likely that these subject areas will be incorporated into a child’s intellectual identity. Intellectual identity affects performance in school and career ambitions [4]. Interest in math, science, and genetics can thus be encouraged or discouraged through positive or negative exposure to these subjects in childhood.

In addition to improving curiosity and intellectual development, educational picture books can break down gender, cultural, and racial barriers to science careers. Women are less likely to pursue majors in science, technology engineering, or math (STEM) regardless of their experiences with STEM in high school and only 20% of STEM bachelor’s degrees are held by women. Social and environmental factors contribute to this underrepresentation, and educators have made small changes to allow scientifically and mathematically gifted young women to consider STEM fields as a career option [5]. Students in racial minorities are also underrepresented in STEM careers. Officials from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are redesigning freshmen courses to encourage student interest in STEM. This move is crucial as 33% of African American PhD’s attended HBCUs for their undergraduate education, but establishing STEM interest in future HBCU students as children is critical [6]. Character design thus is an important component of a story.  Literature serves as one way for children explore bias, similarities, and differences between different groups. Children’s literature can make students can open them to understanding the world in a pluralistic way [7] and even change cultural perceptions of who becomes a scientist.

In June 2013, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened an exhibit titled, “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code.” Kids can isolate their DNA, discover their genetic traits, and model DNA sequences using beads, coloring pages, prepared kits, and building toys. Volunteers tailor scientific explanations of activities to the age, educational background, and interests of the guests. Primarily in an effort to create another picture book option for this interactive Genome Zone, I have started a picture book: I have Grandma’s Smile. The protagonist will be an African American girl around age eight, a fictional character who normalizes STEM interests within a real girl’s social environment.  By embarking on a journey to find out why everyone says she has her Grandmother’s smile, she and the young audience can use genetics to answer questions about common features in her family and within their own.


  1. Read C. Scaffolding children’s learning through story and drama. IATEFL Young Learner Publication. 20082:6-9.
  2. Sackes M, Trundle KC, and Flevares LM. (2009) Using Chilren’s Literautre to Teach Standard-Based Science Concepts in Early Years. Early Childhood Education Journal 2009 36:425-422
  3. Falk JH. and Dierking LD. The 95 Percent Solution. American Scientist 2010 98(6):486-493
  4. Bang-Jensen V. A Children’s Choice Program: Insights into Book Selection, Social Relationships, and Reader Identity. Learning Arts 2010 87(3):169-176.
  5. Hill C, Corbett C, and St. Rose A. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. AAUW 2010 1-97.
  6. Abate T. Summit at Stanford addresses how to attract underrepresented-minority students to careers in science and technology. Stanford Report 2013 Nov 4.
  7. Higgins JJ. School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Multicultural Children’s Literature: Creating and Appling an Evaluation Tool in Response to the Needs of Urban Educators. Johns Hopkins School of Education 2012.

Image Credit:

Elizabeth Schiavoni is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in the Biology of Global Health. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.